You’re Not Flying, but You Can Still Think About Frequent Flier Miles

Nicole Elgin’s only travel these days is a 15-mile commute by car to a hospital in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s a pediatric nurse, and her days are long and stressful. “But when I clock out from my shift, my mind shifts seamlessly to that next perfect beach,” she said. And with good reason: Last year Ms. Elgin flew more than 100,000 miles on trips from San Francisco to destinations such as Bermuda, the Maldives and Sri Lanka. Most of her flights were virtually free, courtesy of her skills at redeeming frequent flier points.

No one knows when the coronavirus pandemic will end and travelers will be able to take to the skies again. But observers of airline frequent flier programs expect there to be good news for people like Ms. Elgin.

“Travelers will see points and miles incentives targeted to high-value fliers,” said Robert Sahadevan, who once ran a major airline’s loyalty program. “And depending how long the travel slump is, they may make offers large and broadly available.”

“It’s a flier’s market,” said Brian Kelly, the founder and C.E.O. of The Points Guy, a go-to source of information on travel rewards. With demand extremely low, there are deals on rewards tickets in all cabin classes and across many carriers for future travel. Mr. Kelly said his company’s research shows, for example, many more business-class award seats available through United Airlines’ MileagePlus loyalty program, for flights departing after August 2020 (as compared to November 2019). American Airlines has more seat upgrades available than usual. The airline also has a good number of seats available for flights paid with miles to destinations like Australia and Europe, especially in early 2021. Delta Air Lines shows the least movement in the number of reward seats available compared to six months ago.

Ben Schlappig runs the site One Mile at a Time, which covers reward travel. He remembers the months after the 2008 financial crisis when airlines were giving out big bonus awards with every flight.

But there’s a difference between 2008 and now, Mr. Schlappig cautioned. “The airlines don’t need to be that desperate. They are much better positioned today.” Indeed, there are fewer airlines operating than in 2008. Airlines will cut some seat inventory by retiring older aircraft. And the credit card companies that buy frequent flier points in bulk to offer to their cardholders might be choosier on which consumers receive offers.

James Freiman, a New York-based sales executive who usually flies every 10 days or so, has a different concern: whether he’ll be able to maintain his Executive Platinum status on American Airlines this year. “Status is the holy grail of travel,” he said. With status, “doors open for you,” he said.

The “door” he cares about is the cloth curtain separating economy class from business class on transcontinental trips. He has frequently been able to pay the economy fare and around 10,000 miles to upgrade.

But like everyone else, Mr. Freiman isn’t flying right now. “This year, I’ve only flown 30,000 miles,” he said. He usually needs to hit 100,000 miles to requalify.

In response to the pandemic, many airlines and hotel companies have extended the status earned by their members in 2019 for another year, into 2021. Among those relaxing the rules: Qantas, Singapore, Emirates, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, American Airlines and the hotel companies Hyatt and Hilton. (That may be good news for the planet as well: With fewer people encouraged to rack up miles they don’t really need to travel, flying’s carbon footprint may be reduced.)

Here are a few tips to maximize the rewards you earn when you get back on a plane.

The Points Guy, One Mile At A Time, Thrifty Traveler and Scott’s Cheap Flights closely watch for deals in paid and award travel. Their free and paid newsletters, websites and even Instagram feeds consistently reveal real gems in travel — and the deals are expected to come at a faster clip now.

Most of us earn points and miles through (responsible) credit card spending. Make sure you know which categories of spending earn you the most points. Some credit cards feature specific travel perks, including Chase Sapphire, American Express Gold and Platinum and Capital One Venture, which allow you to transfer points to a variety of airline and hotel loyalty programs. This feature opens up more airlines and hotels compared to an airline’s exclusive credit card. There are still lucrative sign-up bonuses for those with good credit.

Travel aficionados love browsing airline rewards websites to find inexpensive award availability. Start searching. For instance, you can book a round trip reward ticket with American Airlines from New York to Sydney, Australia, in February 2021 for 56,000 miles plus taxes. Valued at around one-and-a-half cents per mile, that’s a $784 base fare, which compares favorably to the regular rate of 80,000 miles. Similar deals are available in Europe and the Caribbean.

The airlines generally release award seats 11 months in advance of travel. The window is now open for March 2021, when travel may be more certain.

Airlines have recently offered up to 100 percent bonuses for members who purchase miles. Do so if you’re a few thousand miles short for a long-haul international flight or for a cabin class upgrade, but not to qualify for domestic flights. There’s more value in using miles toward expensive long-haul travel.

It’s easier to get an upgrade between cabin classes in the coming months, and that is expected to continue into early 2021. Most airlines don’t display upgrade availability on their loyalty program websites. Try paid tools such as the (aptly named) ExpertFlyer, which reveal
s seat availability by flight and fare class. With that information, contact the call center later in the evening when hold times are shorter and ask to upgrade on a specific flight.

On many airlines travelers now have an easier time to earn status for 2021; on Delta Air Lines, travelers have a longer runway during which to earn status for 2022, because the program will allow you to roll miles over. Choose a single program and fly exclusively with that carrier to maximize miles.

The major frequent flier and credit card points programs each have designated charities (such as the American Red Cross) where members can donate miles. For a more personal gift, transfer your miles to a health care worker you know — “as a thank you for taking care of us,” Bridget Blaise-Shamai, the president of American Airlines’ Advantage program, suggested. Just ask for their frequent flier number and make the transfer online. Transfers aren’t free of charge, but what better way to give your points a lasting impact?

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